Album of the Week, March 19: Glass Houses by Billy Joel

joelglasstvBilly Joel had music in his life from birth. His father was a classical pianist who fled Europe to escape the Nazis. His mother, another Jewish refugee, encouraged music in the household and insisted that young Billy take piano lessons. Despite his initial resistance, he showed a natural aptitude. After his parents divorced, he played in piano bars to help his mother make ends meet; that work interfered with his studies, and rather than extend his high school years, he dropped out to play rock and roll. Inspired by the Beatles, the Drifters, and the Four Seasons, he worked in a series of Long Island bands and did some session work.

His first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor, was released to little fanfare. While touring to support it, he was signed by Columbia and moved to Los Angeles. His experience in a local piano bar there formed the basis of the title track for his second album, Piano Man. That disc sold modestly, but established him as a talented singer, pianist, and songwriter with a knack for charming pop, sometimes with a rock edge. After two more solid albums that established his sound, he broke big with The Stranger, followed by the nearly as massive 52nd Street. By 1979, he was a certified superstar, with platinum #1 albums, nine Top 40 hits, and a handful of Grammy awards. Frustrated by his inability to get critical acclaim that matched his success, he headed to the studio with his long-time band to record his finest album.

Title Glass Houses
Act Billy Joel
Label Columbia Release Date March 10, 1980
Producer Phil Ramone
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  #9
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. You May Be Right [#7]
  2. Sometimes A Fantasy [#36]
  3. Don’t Ask Me Why [#19]
  4. It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me [#1]
  5. All For Leyna
  6. I Don’t Want to Be Alone
  7. Sleeping With the Television On
  8. C’était Toi (You Were the One)
  9. Close to the Borderline
  10. Through the Long Night

Glass Houses was both a departure and a logical progression. Joel intentionally incorporated more electronic keyboards and synths into the mix and pursued music with nods to punk and New Wave. Through it all, however, he still wrote, played, and sang like Billy Joel, creating a unique synthesis that worked almost in spite of itself. The shattering glass sound effect that opens side one is an apt aural metaphor.

The first four tracks were all Top 40 hits — an unusual feat for the time that duplicated the success of The Stranger. They’re a mixed bag, but each charming in their own right. You May Be Right borrowed from My Life and Movin’ Out, but added a post-punk edge to the sound. Joel roughened his vocals a bit, fitting the story of the bad boy looking for love on his own terms. The second track was another story altogether. Sometimes A Fantasy is a clever song about phone sex that sounds like an Elvis impersonator borrowing Billy Idol’s band. And it works. The result is fun, urgent, and one of Joel’s best songs. Don’t Ask Me Why is another look at relationships and personal interactions, just smug enough without being snide. It also sounds the most like his earlier hits, helping long-time fans feel at home.

It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me is famously the singer’s kiss-off to those who don’t appreciate his musical roots and approach. With nods to classic 50s pop sounds in a very New Wave setting, it shouldn’t work, but it does. Joel’s committed delivery and fun lyrics pull the whole thing together — and result in his first #1 single. Side one wraps up with a fantastic should-have-been-a-hit track. All For Leyna is an urgent, lusty tour-de-force. Joel’s protagonist is obsessed with a woman who may be indifferent, may be no good for him, may be just teaching him a lesson. Whatever the case, he can’t stay away. It’s a great song, with a stunning piano line and smart backup from the whole band.

After that set, side two somehow manages to keep up the pace. I Don’t Want to Be Alone is a wonderful love song, less easy listening than some of his earlier romantic tunes. Joel borrows a semi-Reggae riff that owes something to early Elvis Costello, giving the track an extra twist that helps it work. Sleeping With the Television On is his finest hit that never was, a perfect dissection of how independence and loneliness intersect. The mundane metaphor is perfect, adding a familiarity to the proceedings that makes the story universal. C’etait Toi is the lone throwaway, a fluffy bit of low-key wistfulness that’s partly in French for no particular reason.

On Close to the Borderline, Joel offers his own take on punk attitude. It’s somewhere between hard rock, pure punk, and new wave pop, and again, the determination and skill of the band make it work. It’s a fun romp that shows off how Joel can rock well when he puts his mind to it. Things wrap up with the most classic Joel moment. Through the Long Night sounds more like the decade it’s ushering in than the one it’s leaving, but the sweet sentiment and elegant delivery harken back to the Piano Man’s arc over the 15 previous years. It’s a smart track to end the disc, both as a career touchstone and as a sort of lullaby coda.

Over the course of ten tracks and barely 35 minutes, Billy Joel and company accomplish what they set out to do. Glass Houses is less a reinvention than a smart burst of artistic growth. The variety of lyrical and musical approaches helps it rise above his previous work. It also set the stage for the best — as well as the most indulgent — moments of the decades to come.

FURTHER LISTENING: Billy Joel has said he’s done recording pop and rock music, so his full career is available for the listening. With nearly three dozen Top 40 hits, he’s well anthologized. The three Greatest Hits volumes capture his radio-friendly career relatively well, tossing in a couple fan favorite album tracks for good measure. For a single disc sampling, either The Essential Billy Joel or The Hits does an adequate job that should satisfy the casual fan.

His just over a dozen albums are a mixed bag, usually including a couple of solid hits, a couple of great album tracks, some interesting songs, and some filler. The Stranger and 52nd Street are the most successful and most praised, but not my favorites. After Glass Houses, I recommend The Nylon Curtain. It’s trickier, and has some famously awkward lyrical moments, but the production is amazing and the adventurous spirit is compelling. An Innocent Man is a wonderful tribute to the music of Joel’s youth, and arguably his most consistent disc.

Album of the Week, March 5: Heart Like A Wheel by Linda Ronstadt

ronstadtwheeleyesLinda Ronstadt grew up in Tucson, AZ, the daughter of pioneering Arizona ranchers of mostly German and Mexican descent. Her whole family loved music, and she absorbed a wide array of styles by the time she was 10. She credits significant influence from artists as disparate as Hank Williams and Maria Callas. At 14, she and two of her siblings formed a folk trio. She grew increasingly interested in merging folk and rock, eventually dropping out of college to join friend Bobby Kimmel in L.A. They hooked up with Kenny Edwards and formed the Stone Poneys, whose Different Drum gave Ronstadt her first hit. After three Poneys discs, she went solo, recording a series of albums blending pop, country, and folk and touring with artists ranging from the Doors to Jackson Browne. Her albums met with limited success, but she gradually developed a distinctive style and a significant circle of like-minded musical friends and collaborators. Her 1973 album Don’t Cry Now found her working with J.D. Souther, future Eagles Glenn Frey and Don Henley, and — significantly — British pop singer and producer Peter Asher. They meshed well in the studio, with Asher understanding Ronstadt’s broad tastes and talents. He signed on as producer for her next album, which proved to be her breakthrough.

Title Heart Like A Wheel
Act Linda Ronstadt
Label Capitol Release Date November 1974
Producer Peter Asher (with Andrew Gold)
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  n/c
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. You’re No Good [#1]
  2. It Doesn’t Matter Anymore
  3. Faithless Love
  4. Dark End of the Street
  5. Heart Like A Wheel
  6. When Will I Be Loved? [#2]
  7. Willin’
  8. I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)
  9. Keep Me From Blowin’ Away
  10. You Can Close Your Eyes

Heart Like A Wheel set up the formula that launched a superstar career. Asher and Ronstadt rounded up a collection of classic rock and R&B covers, songs written by her friends and contemporaries, and new songs suited to the country-pop flavor of the album from a variety of writers. The result was a smart, cohesive adventure in music. It was also a showcase for Ronstadt’s vocal power, showing off more range and depth than her previous solo work. Asher also brought in multi-instrumentalist Andrew Gold — who assisted with production on some tracks — and engineer Val Garay; the three would be mainstays of Ronstadt’s music for nearly a decade.

Things kick off in high fashion with a song Ronstadt and her band frequently used to close her live shows. You’re No Good is a smoldering song of romance gone wrong, a classic R&B track written by Clint Ballard and recorded a handful of times before Ronstadt perfected it. A very different sound than her previous more country-tinged tracks, it’s a smart choice and a great introduction to the disc. It also became her first big hit and her only Hot 100 chart-topper.

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore — another classic cover written by Paul Anka and made famous by Buddy Holly and the Crickets — is more like her earlier work, but sounds fresh and inviting after the strong lead-in. Souther’s Faithless Love is a great country-pop torch song with a charming arrangement and a passionate vocal. Pop chestnut Dark End of the Street finds new life with Ronstadt’s restrained vocal and sudden, urgent surges of sorrow. The title track is and inspired choice, a quirky, literate look at the challenges of love written by Anna McGarrigle. Ronstadt channels the distinctive energy of the song, adding a pop standard vocal that differs completely from the McGarrigle version, working just like a good cover should.

Side two opens with another classic song that became another big hit. The team transform the Everly Brothers’ quietly wistful When Will I Be Loved into a demand for the love the singer deserves. Short and powerful, it works nicely and shows of the clever sequencing of the album. Lowell George’s Willin’ is an even odder choice than the title track, a song about trucking written from a very masculine point of view. Ronstadt mines the essential humanity of the song, however, and the production is flawless. Up next is a tribute to one of her main influences, a solid cover of Hank William’s I Can’t Help It. Ronstadt offers a respectful interpretation, crafting an homage rather than a surprise, and it works well. Keep Me From Blowing Away is a lovely song of loss written by fellow Williams fan Paul Craft. It makes for a solid pairing.

Things wrap up with the gorgeous You Can Close Your Eyes. Written by James Taylor about his relationship with Joni Mitchell, it’s a modern lullaby of aching beauty. Taylor himself has recorded it solo and with both Mitchell and Carly Simon, and dozens of other artists have interpreted the song over the years. Ronstadt’s may be the finest approach, however, with the production discovering the hope in the sorrow, the possibility in the leaving. It’s a perfect way to wrap up a stunning album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Heart Like A Wheel matched the chart success of its lead single, becoming the first of Ronstadt’s three #1 albums. It propelled her to stardom, and over the course of the following decade she became one of the best-selling pop artists in the country. Her next six discs were fairly similar in approach, gradually taking on a more New Wave flavor as she entered the 80s. Since then, she’s offered up a variety of sounds, ranging from traditional Mexican music to pop standards to country-pop gems (often in collaboration with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris). She stopped recording in 2006, revealing in 2013 that Parkinson’s disease made singing difficult. All of her albums offer something charming. Besides Wheel, her most consistent album (and a sentimental favorite of mine) is 1982’s Get Closer. Hasten Down the Wind is a good showcase with some strong tracks, and Simple Dreams is her second-best pop-rock set. With 21 Top 40 hits, her chart career distills nicely. If you’re mostly interested in her radio material — which is solid but misses many of her finer moments — The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt is a solid collection.

Album of the Year, 2016: Long Live the Angels by Emeli Sandé

sandebreathingAdele Emily Sandé was born in Sunderland, England, where her Zambian father met her English mother. The family moved to Alford, Scotland when she was four. She began songwriting at 11 and pursued music as a passion, including participation in a “Rapology” competition at 16. Inspired by her educator father, she took her education seriously, completing a degree in neuroscience before pursuing music full time so she would have “something to fall back on.” Her artistic inspirations are Frida Kahlo – for her fearlessness – and Nina Simone. She also drew musical inspiration from Joni Mitchell.

Sandé’s early work consisted of writing songs for other acts, gradually assuming guest vocalist roles on a number of these tracks. Since another British singer was making it big with the name Adele, Sandé opted for an alternate spelling of her middle name for her singing career. After a numerous chart collaborations, including the #6 Diamond Rings with Chipmunk, she began work on her debut album, Our Version of Events. It was a UK smash, spending ten weeks at #1 and becoming the biggest-selling British album of 2012. Sandé was invited to sing at the opening and closing ceremonies of that year’s London-held Olympic games.

The pressure took its toll, and her one-year marriage to her longtime boyfriend crashed and burned. After a relentless touring schedule, she went into seclusion to craft her second album. Drawing from her painful experiences and her fearless inspirations, she crafted an amazing set of tracks drawing on an even broader set of musical traditions.

Album Long Live the Angels
Act Emeli Sandé
Label Virgin Release Date November 11, 2016
Producer Emeli Sandé, Naughty Boy, Mac & Phil, Chris Loco, Mojam
U.S. Chart  41 U.K. Chart  2
  1. Selah
  2. Breathing Underwater
  3. Happen
  4. Hurts
  5. Give Me Something
  6. Right Now
  7. Shakes
  8. Garden
  9. I’d Rather Not
  10. Lonely
  11. Sweet Architect
  12. Tenderly
  13. Every Single Little Piece
  14. Highs & Lows
  15. Babe

Sandé launches Long Live the Angels with a stunning invocation. Selah is a brief, inspirational track, welcoming the listener and setting the soul-searching, ultimately hopeful tone of the disc. Things pick up with Breathing Underwater, a soulful mission statement that finds strength in even the darkest moments. It’s one of her finest songs, and a stirring introduction to the disc. Happen, by contrast, is bare bones. A guitar and vocal number reminiscent of Pops Staples, it holds an eerie tension as she draws out the title, creating a sense of waiting.

The wait breaks with Hurts, another powerful number. Ironically both one of the most danceable and most tragic songs on the disc, it surges forward with rapid handclaps and driving strings. Sandé turns in a gospel-inspired vocal as she declares “my heart’s not made of stone, it hurts.”

Give Me Something is a desperate plea, a search for something to believe in during dark times. It sequences smartly into Right Now, a sort of answer to Happen, with similar guitar-and-vocal structure but a change in pace. Demanding an end to the wait of the previous song, Sandé asks for the love she deserves. The first half of the album wraps up with the stirring, sensuous Shakes, an exploration of passion as a double-edged sword.

Garden is a smart centerpiece, a collaboration with Jay Electronica and Aine Zion that features a rap by the former, smart vocal contributions from the latter, and the most hip-hop sound of the disc.

Part two opens with another standout, the wistful I’d Rather Not. Over beautiful acoustic guitar, Sandé intones a rich bit of irony. “Although I’d love to, I’d rather not,” she observes, noting the pain that giving in to her feelings has caused her. Powerful because it’s understated, it shows off another side of the singer. Lonely picks up from there, almost celebrating the loss she regrets but understands as necessary. On Sweet Architect, she draws strength from relying on the support of a loved one. This trio of songs – smartly placed in the middle of the action – encapsulates the themes, tensions, and hopes of the disc nicely.

Sandé brings in her father and cousins to provide a supporting chorus on Tenderly. It’s a wonderful up-tempo number with a classic gospel-pop feel that celebrates new love and hope after the devastation explored in earlier tracks. That sense of hope informs the closing trio of songs.

Every Single Little Piece explores the complexity of a woman regaining her strength, one piece at a time. That flows seamlessly into the choir-supported anthem Highs & Lows, another of the disc’s standouts. Joyous and infectious, it explores the power one can draw from all experiences in life and features one of Sandé’s finest vocals – no mean feat. The disc wraps up with a celebration of new love in Babe. Rather than an innocent paean, however, it’s a wonderful recognition of the effort needed from both partners to make a relationship work. Ebullient and smart, it’s the perfect conclusion to a brilliant album.

BONUS TRACKS: The deluxe edition of Long Live the Angels features three additional songs that truly enhance the experience. Kung Fu is a bit of smart wordplay centered on an offer to be available for a friend in need. It’s a nice counterpoint to the explorations of the main album, and the fun and sincerity are measured out perfectly. Somebody channels Lady Gaga in the best way, with Sandé insisting “tonight I am a big fucking deal.” A bit of a road song, a bit of insistent independence, it’s a nice little journey. Sandé builds the perfect coda with This Much Is True. It’s a bit of a Joni Mitchell tribute, with acoustic guitar underpinning lyrics that veer from the topical to the romantic in a smart stream. Fundamentally a declaration of love in trying times, it’s a wonderful treat to wrap up the extra moments.

FURTHER LISTENING: It’s hard to remember that Emeli Sandé only has two albums to her credit given the dozens of tracks to which she’s contributed writing and vocals. Most of these collaborations are more in the hip hop and rap vein; her rich singing adds a wonderful humanity to them and her sense of fun regularly shines through. The finest is her collaboration with Naughty Boy for his album Hotel Cabana, the exhilarating Wonder. Her debut album isn’t as consistent as Long Live the Angels, but its best moments are amazing and the rest of the tracks are at worst well-constructed soulful pop. If you want stunning vocals in an array of styles, add both Sandé discs to your collection.

Album of the Week, July 10: Diamonds and Rust by Joan Baez

BaezD&RJoan Baez was born on Staten Island in 1941. Her parents were both immigrants — her father from Mexico and her mother from Scotland — and she grew up steeped in their culture and music. The family converted to Quakerism when she was a child, something that shaped her lifelong pacifism and interest in social justice. She also developed an early interest in music, sparked in part by the reactions to her clear, beautiful voice. After attending a Pete Seeger concert at age 13, she found a way to merge her passions and began pursuing a career in music. She performed at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival and landed a contract with Vanguard records. After achieving some success, she met an up-and-coming folk singer named Bob Dylan. They began a complicated life-long friendship and a short on-and-off romance. Her time with Dylan deepened her interest in protest folk and her passion for blending music and political action. She refused to perform at segregated venues, donated her services to protest events, and performed at Woodstock. By 1974, she was a force to be reckoned with in music circles, known equally for her powerful voice and strong opinions. Reconnecting with Dylan, taking stock of her career, and turning her political lens to more intimate issues, she entered the studio with producer David Kershenbaum and a crack band, including jazz greats Larry Carlton and Tom Scott, and recorded her most powerful — and best-selling — album.

Title Diamonds & Rust
Act Joan Baez
Label A & M Release Date April 1975
Producer David Kershenbaum
U.S. Chart  #11 U.K. Chart  n/c
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Diamonds and Rust [#35]
  2. Fountain of Sorrow
  3. Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer
  4. Children and All That Jazz
  5. Simple Twist of Fate
  6. Blue Sky [#57]
  7. Hello In There
  8. Jesse
  9. Winds of the Old Days
  10. Dida
  11. I Dream of Jeannie / Danny Boy

Best known for recording traditional music and other people’s writings, she provided four of her own songs on this disc, contributing to its intimate feel. The first of these launches the album in fine form. The title track wa inspired by a phone conversation with Dylan, and captures the intensity of their relationship nicely. The opening is flawless: “Well I’ll be damned, here comes your ghost again.” Epic in scope and rich in poetry, it’s a magnificent song, perhaps her finest moment on record. The emotion packed into the track gives it a universal appeal, resonating beyond the very personal narrative. (In fact, British metal band Judas Priest have made a serviceable adaptation a standard feature of their live shows for decades.)

Baez turns next to two different takes on fading relationships, each by another significant songwriter. Jackson Browne’s Fountain of Sorrow was a new song at the time, but its iconic power was already clear. Wistful and quiet where the title track is incisive and determined, it makes a strong counterpoint. Baez’ delivery is a little faster and brighter than Browne’s, making it her own and weaving it into the feel of the album. Stevie Wonder’s Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer, written with Syreeta Wright, is a brief, aching acknowledgment of the way love can slip away. This trio of songs provides three different lenses on loss and memory, providing a great start to the disc.

Baez wrote Children and All That Jazz; it’s a charming whirlwind of a song that reflects the enthusiasm and energy of its subjects. One of the lightest tracks on the disc, it provides a nice pause before things get more serious again.

Simple Twist of Fate is an amazing moment. Bob Dylan had barely released his original version — from Blood On the Tracks — when Baez started recording her album. It’s one of the finest love songs in the Dylan catalog, a quiet meditation on loss that fits perfectly with the themes of Diamonds & Rust. Baez understands Dylan’s style and is sympathetic to it while making the track her own. She also turns in a spot-on Dylan impersonation late in her reading, a nice nod to the writer and their complex relationship.

Next up is a trio of well-chosen covers. Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts wrote Blue Sky for his girlfriend, then decided to remove any pronouns to make the song more universal. That decision makes his fine composition perfect for Baez, who interprets it as a tribute to the natural world that transfers to the object of open affection. John Prine’s pensive Hello In There is a heartbreaking look at aging and loss, with just the right note of social protest. Baez offers a straightforward reading, letting the honest pain of the song shine through. Jesse was written by Janis Ian, an intimate portrait of loneliness that Baez invests with her own ache. These three tracks show a master interpreter at the height of her powers.

Winds of the Old Days is another song about Dylan, this time focusing on the complicated path of his musical career. It’s smart and poignant, a nice counterpoint to the more visceral title track. On Dida, Baez revisits one of her own songs, a wordless tribute to the power of music from her previous album. Singing with Joni Mitchell, she invests it with a wonderful upbeat energy missing from the original. In many ways, this wraps up the album proper, offering a tribute to the art that weaves through the intimate tracks. Baez adds a sweet coda, a medley of two standards that she dedicates to her grandmother.

Mining rich, emotional soil, Baez crafts her finest moment. A quiet, moving set of original songs and well-chosen covers, Diamonds & Rust finds the folk diva offering another side of her amazing talent. A pinnacle in an amazing catalog, it’s one of the finest albums of the 70s and a perfect example of the blend of folk, pop, and jazz that made for the best of the singer-songwriter era.

Album of the Week, June 26: Last by the Unthanks

UnthanksLastThe Unthank sisters were born in Ryton, on the Northumberland border in northeast England. Their father is an interior designer who sings folk tunes as a member of a local group called the Keelers, and their mother belongs to a local folk choir. Music — especially Northumbrian folk — was a big part of Unthank family life. Rachel, nearly eight years older than Becky, began singing semi-professionally as she finished college. She formed the Winterset with pianist Belinda O’Hooley, and Becky joined part time while beginning her university years. The group released two acclaimed albums with two different fiddlers, then Becky decided to make music her career as well. Renamed the Unthanks, the sisters were joined by long-time producer, manager, label owner, (and Rachel’s new husband) Adrian McNally on a variety of instruments plus Winterset fiddler Niopha Keegan and guitarist Chris Price. The new band’s first outing Here’s the Tender Coming, won wide praise and established their mature approach to fusing traditional and modern music. Following that success, they repaired to Rachel and Adrian’s home to record their finest moment (so far).

Album Last
Act The Unthanks
Label Rabble Rouser Release Date March 14, 2011
Producer Adrian McNally
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. Gan to the Kye
  2. The Gallowgate Lad
  3. Queen of Hearts
  4. Last
  5. Give Away Your Heart
  6. No One Knows I’m Gone
  7. My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up
  8. Canny Hobbie Elliot
  9. Starless
  10. Close the Coalhouse Door
  11. Last (reprise)

The Unthanks’ sound is a rich, quiet blend of musical styles. They adapt traditional songs, modern folk, rock and pop standards, and unusual covers from the likes of Robert Wyatt and Antony Hegarty. With powerful family harmonies based on two distinctive voices and carefully crafted arrangements, they make things sound very much their own while remaining true to the spirit of the source material. The Winterset provided livelier settings; the Unthanks are more sedate but richer and more emotionally resonant. Last, a meditation on the power of loss and sorrow, is a perfect reflection of these talents.

Gan to the Kye is a flawless start. A border song about raising cattle, it becomes an almost mystical exploration of rural life and hard work in the Unthanks’ musical hands. Victorian era Geordie songwriter Joe Wilson put the lyrics of The Gallowgate Lad to a traditional tune, crafting a moving song of a lass whose lad has gone away with the militia. Wilson’s words are smart and aching, and the Unthanks weave a compelling musical spell of loss around them. Wrapping up the traditional trio that launches the disc is a powerful version of the old broadside Queen of Hearts. A tale of romantic struggle, it captures the tension of wanting something — or someone — that’s not the best choice, wanting it so much that giving up everything seems reasonable. These three tracks form a suite of traditional music set to modern arrangements, a wonderful establishment of the Unthanks’ vision and skill.

Adrian McNally’s Last is a long, slow build, recorded in a concert hall whose piano acoustics haunted him. A meditation on fears of an uncertain future and the dangerous appeal of a flawed past, it’s a wonderful centerpiece and a nice reminder of the band’s skill at building their own music. Next up is a song from Jon Redfern, a condemnation of Britain’s decision to join the Gulf War. Give Away Your Heart is so subtle and moving that it works as a protest of many kinds of flawed decision-making, from the international to the deeply personal. (In fact, Becky Unthank originally thought it was a broken love song, and the layered impact resonated with her.) Closing this set of modern compositions is a wonderful reading of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s No One Knows I’m Gone. For Waits, it’s a fairly direct song, and the Unthanks’ arrangement gives it amazing weight. As with the first three tracks, this mini-suite works as its own unit and as a part of the whole that is Last.

My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up is a Northumbrian slip jig, intended to be a fast dance number. The Unthanks slow it down, letting the words — in dense Northumbrian dialect — resonate more clearly. The effect is delightfully jarring. Things get truly moving with the jaunty adultery dance number Canny Hobbie Elliot, the fastest paced track on the album. It features fun singing and playing, a bit of spry joy in the somber proceedings.

The next two tracks are two very different modern songs. Starless was originally written by King Crimson bassist John Wetton for the band’s sixth album, but rejected by the band in favor of an instrumental improv version (Starless and Bible Black, the title track). Something closer to Wetton’s original intent appeared on the next disc, Red, and the Unthanks make that version their own. A powerful, dark song, somehow the dense prog rock becomes a perfect lush folk-pop anthem. Close the Coalhouse Door was written by Alex Glasgow for a play of the same name, a lament for the fate of coal miners. It’s a dark reflection of the destructive industry, recognizing its critical importance to a significant percentage of British laborers. Modern and old at once, it serves as a smart close to the album.

A brief instrumental reprise of the title track is a well-chosen coda. Bright and engaging, it reminds the listener that sorrow and loss are as important to the human spirit as joy. It shows of McNally’s skill at sequencing and arranging, and the smart talent of the band as a whole at making a cohesive musical statement. Last is strong themes in careful, often subtle arrangements. It takes a listen or two to sink in, then it has you caught for good. That’s great music.

FURTHER LISTENING: All of the Unthanks’ albums are wonderful in their own way. Here’s a quick tour of their work so far.

  • Cruel Sister is the most fun album, a perfect starting point that features well-chosen traditional and modern songs. It’s the most initially engaging of the band’s work and holds up well after a decade of great Unthanks music.
  • The Bairns hints at what the Winterset will become when they rearrange into the Unthaks. Darker but still focused on individual songs, it’s solid but not as cohesive as their best work. It features Belinda O’Hooley’s magical Blackbird, one of the best tracks in their catalog.
  • Here’s the Tender Coming is a great launch to the new version of the band. It’s a solid transition, showcasing the group’s growing confidence and complexity.
  • The Diversions are three aptly named live albums recorded after Last. Vol. 1 is all covers of songs by Antony Hegarty or Robert Wyatt. It works surprisingly well. Vol. 2 is a more traditional live album, featuring songs from the band’s catalog and some other pieces that fit well, with some nice brass band elements. Vol. 3 is a the studio version of a thematic live show featuring songs about shipyards.
  • Mount the Air builds on Last, focusing on whole-album cohesion almost to a fault. It’s gorgeous and well-constructed, but a bit harder to embrace.

If you like what the Unthanks do, consider all the studio albums and give the Diversions a try. After Last, Cruel Sister is my favorite, with Here’s the Tender Coming a close second.

Album of the Week, June 5: Little Windows by Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones

ThompsonJonesTwo great sounds that sound great together! After a decade of steady, strong releases, second-generation folk-pop singer Teddy Thompson slowed his output and focused on supporting his mother’s comeback and producing a family collaboration. Power pop songstress Kelly Jones heard Thompson on the radio in 2011, then ran into him around L.A. She thought they might sound good as a team, so they tried out classic George Jones on stage. The result was magical, and the pair began writing together. With the support of regular Jones collaborator Mike Viola and Nashville musician Bill DeMain, they assembled a burst of pure country-pop delight.

Album Little Windows
Act Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones
Label Cooking Vinyl Release Date April 1, 2016
Producer Mike Viola
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. Never Knew You Loved Me Too
  2. Make A Wish On Me
  3. Better At Lying
  4. Wondering
  5. I Thought That We Said Goodbye
  6. Don’t Remind Me
  7. As You Were
  8. Only Fooling
  9. You Can’t Call Me Baby
  10. You Took My Future

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Thompson outlined the mission statement for the project.

We wanted to write an album of timeless songs with universal themes. Songs that could stand next to those of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant or Doc Pomus. Songs that can be sung alone at a piano or with a band or maybe even with an orchestra.

That will come as no surprise to fans of Thompson, who frequently cites the countrypolitan gems of the late 50s as his favorite music. Jones’ modern take on the Brill Building sound is a perfect match. Their muscial temperaments are nicely aligned as well: Thompson’s happiest songs have a wistful tone and Jones adds sparkle to her saddest moments. Their harmonies are tight and goreous in a way that usually only families can achieve. Recorded quickly, live in the studio, their warm and engaging colloaboration is magical.

Viola mans the boards for ten tracks, mostly written by Thompson, Jones, and DeMain. A crack band — Attraction Pete Thomas on drums, Davey Faraghar on bass, Daniel Clarke on piano and organ, and Stevie Elliot on electric guitar — support the sublime vocals, with acoustic guitar from Thompson.

Things open with a joyful vocal burst. Never Knew You Loved Me Too is a perfect love-as-surprise pop number. Make A Wish On Me blends a series of wishing metaphors with sparkling vocals and a wonderful organ line. It’s a standout of the disc, and this live version shows off the pair’s harmonies in fine style. With Better at Lying things get a bit darker. Thomas’ drumming is flawless as the singers ponder romance gone wrong. Wondering features Jones’ strongest lead with a great honky-tonk guitar on a do-we-feel-the-same gem. The pondering gets more serious on I Thought That We Said Goodbye. The romance is over, but somehow the couple can’t quite let go. The track is a smart, dark masterpiece.

Don’t Remind Me flows perfectly from there, keeping the sorroful groove running. A swaying rhythm section and lovely piano line anchor the wistful As You Were with the singers showcasing their full harmonic range. A buzzing bass provides the foundation for Only Fooling, a sauntering is-it-really-over song. You Can’t Call Me Baby is a nice kiss-off, a cheerful reminder that the one who leaves must “use my proper name.” The disc wraps up with the pensive You Took My Future, a sweet sad goodbye.

Clocking in at barely 28 minutes, Little Windows does what pop does best. It hooks you, delights you, and leaves you wanting more.

Album of the Week, March 27: Robert’s Desert Island Discs

RBHSJDIDBadgeToday’s entry is something a little different. As I was looking over the almost 200 albums I have featured over the years, I asked myself the question that drives the famous BBC Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs: If I were stranded on an island, which discs would I be sure to have with me?

The task proved more daunting than I imagined, so I established a few guidelines and started over. These parameters made the selection a little bit easier.

  1. Original, legitimate releases only: no bootlegs, re-issues with bonus tracks, or any other chicanery to pad the offerings.
  2. Enjoy every track: If this is all I ever get to listen to, it had better be great. A perfect test case is Rubber Soul: it’s an unquestionably brilliant album, but if I had to listen to Michelle or Girl more than once a month, I’d throw myself into the shark-infested waters.
  3. Balance, balance, balance: I tried to embrace the breadth of my tastes and represent a good cross-section of the artists I love.
  4. When in doubt, favorite artists win: My collection includes several acts represented by one great album. In order to represent the artists whose whole catalogs I appreciate, I dropped the one-only artists. That included the hard decisions to eliminate Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, London Calling, Rumours, Blood On the Tracks, and I Am A Bird Now.
  5. Greatest hits: I pondered banning these as a corallary to rule 1, but decided to take them on their own merits. As it turns out, I didn’t wind up with any of these on the list, although I looked closely at a couple. In the end, rule 2 trumped them.

I set my album allowance at 13. Why that number? I could say that it represents the bad luck of being stranded on a desert island, but honestly trying to get to eight — the BBC number — was maddening. My list, my rules, so if this Gilligan-adjacent experience includes a weatherproof sound system, it has room for 13 discs.

Without further ado, here they are, in the order in which I finalized their placement on the list.

Richard & Linda ThompsonShoot out the LightsHIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTShoot Out the Lights (1982, Hannibal) Richard & Linda Thompson
Surprising no-one, I’m sure, this was my first choice — brilliant lyrics, stellar playing, solid band, two of my favorite artists on one disc. Harrowing but hopeful, it captures the human spirit better than anything else for me. Linda delivers some of her best vocals and Richard some of his finest solos. If I had to pick 25 songs to take to the island (please, no!), at least four of them would be from this album.

DifferentKindofLoveSongA Different Kind of Love Song (1983, Appleseed) Dick Gaughan
Another easy choice for me, with some of the best protest music ever written. Gaughan is in fine voice and his guitar work is impeccable. It’s a collection of often dark songs with a shining heart beating at its core. The title track sums things up brilliantly, and inspired me to write an essay for Michael’s blog on the importance of looking at the darkness if we want to get to the light.

AbyssiniansAbyssinians (1983, Topic) June Tabor
June Tabor had to be on the list, but picking the album was tricky. This is my favorite by a narrow margin, and includes a stunning cover of a Waterson song, so it won the day. As Elvis Costello has famously observed, if listening to June Tabor’s voice doesn’t move you, give up music. (Bonus fact: She has worked as a librarian and restaurateur, so she covers the bases of my passions nicely…)

Robyn_Hitchcock_-_I_Often_Dream_Of_TrainsI Often Dream of Trains (1984, Hannibal) Robyn Hitchcock
Another artist I had to have on the island, but a tougher choice. The Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight and the Egyptians’ Element of Light are co-equal with this disc for me. It came down to the essence of the album. The spare setting of Trains lets Robyn shine through in all his eccentric glory.

LastWordThe Last Word (1992, RNA) Gregson & Collister
Another nice package, with two of my favorites on one album, both at the height of their powers. Clive Gregson’s observations about life and love are timeless, and this set includes a couple of tracks written with Boo Hewerdine, another favorite. Christine Collister has a wonderful voice that sometimes gets over-emphasized on her solo discs. Here, the production is flawless.

MitchellC&SCourt and Spark (1974, Asylum) Joni Mitchell
One of the few commercial successes on my list, it’s a little jazz, a little pop, a little folk, all tied together by the singular talents of Joni Mitchell. It also features her finest vocals, not as airy and bright as her earlier work and not as Cohen-adjacent as her later. All of that, and songs about David Geffen and James Taylor! What could be finer?

Til_Tuesday-Everythings_Different_NowEverything’s Different Now (1988, Epic) ’til tuesday
A sentimental favorite, this is an album I play when I’m feeling lost. It’s a powerful look at relationships and how they go wrong — and right. It landed at just the right time for me, providing insight and outlet as I worked through my own issues. Aimee Mann found her lyrical voice, presaging her later solo work. The band is crisp and smart, lending power to the songs. This is as close to flawless as 80s pop gets.

yaz-you_and_me_bothYou and Me Both (1983, Sire) Yaz(oo)
Speaking of 80s pop… A quick look at my Songs of the Day reveals my fondness for the music of my teen years. As I’ve aged, my favorites tend to be the more obscure music, especially synth-pop and smart dance tracks. Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke perfected both. Their brief collaboration as Yazoo (Yaz in the States) turned out two fine albums. This is the better of the pair by a safe margin. Creative synth work, good lyrics, and Alison Moyet’s rich, wonderful voice — magnificent!

FogelbergInnocentThe Innocent Age (1981, Full Moon / Epic) Dan Fogelberg
Not quite the first album I ever bought — an honor that goes to Helen Reddy’s Long Hard Climb — I consider this the launch of my serious music collecting. It’s also a great collection of songs, singer-songwriter magic at its most compelling. Fogelberg gets pigeonholed as an AC balladeer, but his songs could rock, jig, or soar as well. This beautiful song cycle, created as a cradle-to-grave series, shows off all his talents to great effect. A sentimental and musical favorite, packed with hits.

watersonlOnceinaOnce In A Blue Moon (1996, Topic) Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight
The only reason the extended Waterson family shows up this late is that it was nearly impossible to pick one album. While a stay on Waterson:Carthy island would be delightful, Rule 3 demanded a choice. In the end, a dash of Rule 2 combined with the fact that Lal Waterson is one of my favorite songwriters ruled the day. A brilliant set of songs told in her distinctive style with sympathetic support from her talented son, it’s one of the rare albums that I’ll sometimes put on repeat. As an added bonus, Some Old Salty wraps up the album with a good old family sing-along, sneaking some talented relatives onto the island. Family runners-up included Martin Carthy, Bright Phoebus, Norma Waterson, and Red Rice.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_&_Lief_(album_cover)Liege & Lief (1969, A&M) Fairport Convention
Another tough choice. Fairport belonged on the list (although the Richard Thompson double-dip almost got them cut), and What We Did On Our Holidays is my favorite of their albums. This is a close second, however, and Rule 3 brought it home. A pioneering disc, creating the trad-rock genre, it shows the band at the peak of their powers and adds more traditional British music to my island mix.

FearingIndLulIndustrial Lullaby (1997, True North) Stephen Fearing
Another Rule 3 decision, made with great difficulty. I encountered three very different modern folk talents in the same year (1993) and they form a musical trinity for me. Stephen Fearing, Patty Larkin, and Ellis Paul have unique voices but could easily share a stage. (I’d pay to see that!) Since they weren’t here to play rock-paper-scissors, the decision came down to the sheer poetry — lyrical and musical — of Fearing’s album and its astounding cohesion.

TriffidsCalentureCalenture (1987, Island) The Triffids
I had five albums left on my list, and the Triffids dark masterpiece won the final spot. This album is the least like anything else on the list (with Yaz coming in a close second), a strong rock sound with a uniquely West Australian perspective. Urgent and compelling from start to finish, it’s one of the strongest Rule 2 albums in my collection. It didn’t hurt that the title refers to hallucinations caused by too much time at sea.

There you have it, my island playlist is complete. Before I close, I’d like to acknowledge the many amazing artists that bring me musical joy who stayed safely on dry land: The Bats, Peter Blegvad, Nick Drake, the Finn Brothers in all their incarnations, Jethro Tull, the extended McGarrigle – Wainwright family, Stephin Merritt and his many projects, Oysterband, R.E.M., Spirit of the West, those mentioned above, and many more. I’m VERY glad that I don’t have to make this choice as anything but an interesting exercise.

Finally, a note of farewell to my Album of the Week feature. I truly enjoy writing these pieces — and there are certainly more albums to explore — but the limits of my time, collection, and budget demand closure. It seemed fitting that I bookend the regular features with two Richard & Linda Thompson albums and close out these posts as my Jukebox celebrates its fifth anniversary. I will continue my Song of the Day every weekday and Saturday Time Capsules; I may also add an album now and then as inspiration strikes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the music of my island is calling…

Album of the Week, March 20: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight by Richard and Linda Thompson

ThompsonBrightLightsRichard Thompson and Linda Peters met in 1969, while he was still in Fairport Convention and she was working on a folk music career. With mutual friends including Sandy Denny and Simon Nicol, they spent occasional time together, finally working on joint projects in late 1971. With many Fairport members and alumni they were part of the Bunch, recording fun covers of a dozen 50s hits for the album Rock On. The couple toured with Simon Nicol as Hokey Pokey, and Linda provided backing vocals on Richard’s solo debut, Henry the Human Fly, released in 1972. They married later that year and began working on their first project as a couple. The result, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, set a high bar for both their careers.

Album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
Act Richard & Linda Thompson
Label Island Release Date April 1974
Producer Richard Thompson and John Wood
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. When I Get to the Border
  2. The Calvary Cross
  3. Withered and Died
  4. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
  5. Down Where the Drunkards Roll
  6. We Sing Hallelujah
  7. Has He Got A Friend For Me?
  8. The Little Beggar Girl
  9. The End of the Rainbow
  10. The Great Valerio

The album featured vocals from both partners. As with Henry, Richard played guitars, mandolin, dulcimer, and a variety of other instruments. His guitar work is more restrained than on many of his other recordings, but no less powerful for it. The rhythm section of Timmy Donald (drums) and Pat Donaldson (bass) — both part of the Bunch — provided a solid backing, and a sizable lineup of folk friends pitched in as well. Building on the distinctly English folk-rock of Richard’s work to date, the ten tracks shimmer with modern energy while steeped in something deeply traditional.

Things start off aptly with a journeying song. When I Get to the Border features Richard’s best vocal to this point as he describes an effort to escape the mundanities of life. He may literally wander the dusty street or simply push the borders by drowning “in a barrel of wine”, but he’ll find a way to transcend the tedium. It’s a fun, grim, almost optimistic song, hinting at the lyrical themes that would become RT staples. The Calvary Cross is a darker, mystical song, reminiscent of his writings with Fairport fiddler Dave Swarbrick. Linda takes the lead vocal on Withered and Died, a mournful song of loss that gains humanity and tentative warmth from her sympathetic delivery.

The title track is a masterpiece, another bit of escapism with more hope and determination. A bright horn section gives it delightful energy, and the Thompsons almost frolic through their demands for a great night on the town. Continuing the masterful sequencing, Down Where the Drunkards Roll looks at those whose fate after the bright lights is less than giddy. With a stunning harmony vocal from Trevor Lucas (soon to join Fairport), it wraps up side one in powerful — if dark — style.

Side two opens with another song of transition, celebrating the “turning of the year.” We Sing Hallelujah is a secular hymn, a hope for better days, given power by the interweaving of the Thompsons’ vocals. Linda turns in a gorgeous lead on Has He Got A Friend For Me? a song of longing that would have fit perfectly among the hits of Linda Ronstadt. Quietly aching, it’s one of her finest performances — no mean feat. The Little Beggar Girl is a smart bit of modern folk propelled by John Kirkpatrick’s sprightly accordion. A delightful celebration of the strength of the oppressed, it gains power from Linda’s fun vocal.

Richard goes to one of his bleakest places — also no mean feat — on his anti-lullaby The End of the Rainbow. A dark reflection on the pain and suffering in the world, it’s a cheerless warning to a small child, brimming with humanity but offering little hope. Things wrap up in stunning fashion with The Great Valerio. A stirring acoustic number, it features a powerfully subtle guitar line from Richard and an enchanting vocal from Linda. A metaphor for living life fully and honestly, it’s a standout in both catalogs and a perfect closer to a great album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Spending a couple of years away from music in Sufi communes in the 70s, the Thompsons only released six albums in just under a decade before their marriage detonated. All six are interesting, although the results are curiously inconsistent. After Bright Lights, they released

  • Hokey Pokey (1975), a decent follow-up that is fairly consistent but never rises to the level of its predecessor.
  • Pour Down Like Silver (1975), the first album to openly embrace Richard’s turn toward Sufism, eight stunning tracks without a falter.
  • First Light (1978), their return to music, an amiable set with some great songs and some unfortunate production.
  • Sunnyvista (1979), interesting and adequate, but largely uninspired. Richard and Linda never recorded a bad song, but this is their weakest set.

After this, they lost their label and recorded a disastrous set with Gerry Rafferty producing; the results were mercifully shelved. Long-time friend Joe Boyd signed them to his tiny start-up label, Hannibal, and helped them salvage that material, resulting in one of the finest albums ever recorded, Shoot Out the Lights (1982). The couple famously imploded both on and off stage during the following year before splitting for good. Richard has maintained an impressive solo career, racking up honors and critical acclaim while pursuing his distinctive musical and lyrical vision. Linda started a solo career as well before vocal problems sidelined her for years. She continues to turn out occasional, lovely albums. Two of their children — Teddy and Kami — are also in the business, often working with one parent or the other. Richard has provided guitar work on a couple of Linda’s songs, and the whole family got together for an amazing album in 2014.

Album of the Week, March 13: Element of Light by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians

robyn_hitchcock_the_egyptians-element_of_lightRobyn Hitchcock first made waves with the unique punkedelia of the Soft Boys. When the band dissolved, he went solo, releasing a solid effort, a fascinating mess, and a quiet masterpiece. When he decided to work with a band again, he called on two old friends, Soft Boys Andy Metcalfe (bass, keyboards, guitar) and Morris Windsor (drums). Adding keyboard player Roger Jackson, he introduced Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. The group built on Hitchcock’s solo work, providing an edgy folk-rock sound that polished the energy of the Soft Boys into a perfect setting for the singer/guitarist’s surrealist musings on life. After a solid start with Fegmania and a deliciously powerful live album, the group hit their stride with one of the finest albums in Hitchcock’s long, distinctive career.

Album Element of Light
Act Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
Label Midnight Release Date 1986
Producer Robyn Hitchcock and Andy Metcalfe with Pat Collier
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. If You Were A Priest
  2. Winchester
  3. Somewhere Apart
  4. Ted, Woody and Junior
  5. The President
  6. Raymond Chandler Evening
  7. Bass
  8. Airscape
  9. Never Stop Bleeding
  10. Lady Waters and the Hooded One
  11. The Black Crow Knows
  12. The Crawling
  13. The Leopard
  14. Tell Me About Your Drugs

Element of Light refers to Hitchcock’s experience of the natural beauty on his favorite beach, located on the Isle of Wight, the scene of the photographs on the album sleeve.. That sense of naturalism runs through much of his work and provides the touchstone for this collection. Hitchcock also opens another window into his influences. Where his solo acoustic wonder, I Often Dream of Trains, was partly an ode to Syd Barrett, much of this disc resonates with touches of John Lennon circa Revolver. While clearly his own work, the band leader’s vocals and guitar — as well as his smart reliance on talented bandmates — clearly reference his hero.

Things open with an off-kilter romance that could have come from the Soft Boys’ catalog. If You Were A Priest is a fun romp and a smart way to start the proceedings. Winchester is a lush ode to a stop between London and the Isle of Wight. Lush and textured, it features an elegantly swirling piano, delicate brushwork on the drums, and rich harmonies from Metcalfe and Windsor. Gorgeous and meditative, it forms a key part of the quiet naturalism of the album.

Somewhere Apart is that strangest of beasts, a moment where one might easily say of a Hitchcock song, “That could have been a hit!” Relying heavily on the rhythm section, it’s danceable and charming, subversively featuring typical Hitchcock absurdities among the dance references. Nostalgia gets skewered on Ted, Woody and Junior an ode to the homoeroticism of 50s muscle magazines. The skewer gets sharper on The President, a rare moment of overt political commentary. Hitchcock shreds Ronald Reagan’s visit to the SS cemetery at Bitburg, neatly dissecting the Cowboy President’s disastrous legacy.

With an eerie bass keyboard, Raymond Chandler Evening is pure Hitchcock noir. One of the singer’s finest moments, it captures the spirit of the mystery master in glimpses and dark hints. It also features a line that sums up Hitchcock’s career nicely: “I’d like to reassure you, but I’m not that kind of guy.” Bass is a surrealist bit of naturalism, a twisted catalog of sea creatures and their activities. Think Bosch visits the seaside…

The album’s centerpiece — featuring the title line — is the magnificent Airscape. With a wonderful glass harmonica and lyrical, sympathetic playing, Hitchcock crafts an ode to the splendor of nature. Soaring and sincere, it finds Hitchcock channeling Walt Whitman and Van Morrison through his very personal musical lens. Another standout in his whole catalog, it assures this disc’s place among the finest of his career.

Never Stop Bleeding is a quiet meditation on suffering, a darker moment of naturalism. It manages to be brooding and sympathetic at once, a powerful combination. The original album ends with the amazing neo-folk ballad Lady Waters and the Hooded One. With nice harmonies, a driving bass line, and searing guitar moments, it could be a Fairport Convention outtake, if not for the distinctly Hitchcock twist to the story. It’s a fine wrap-up to an amazing album.

The initial CD release features four bonus tracks, all of which add something to the mix — something many extras fail to do. The Black Crow Knows is a smart bit on the power of nature, a dark little warning that fits perfectly. The Crawling is a bit of horror movie charm, ominous and mysterious. The Leopard is a slighter moment of naturalism, but a fine song in its own right and a  solid ecological warning. Tell Me About Your Drugs works as a great coda, matching the Soft Boys tones of the opening track with a wink, a nod, and a knowing grimace.

Over the course of 14 tracks, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians provide the listener with a fun, smart, distinctive set of songs. They fuse eccentric psychedelia, folk rock, and smart pop, adding something special that makes Element of Light a standout album and a highlight of a long, fascinating career.

FURTHER LISTENING: I’ve looked at Hitchcock’s solo and Soft Boys catalogs on previous Albums of the Week. He spent a decade recording with the Egyptians, taking a brief break to release a solo acoustic album in 1990. With the burgeoning commercial potential of the college / alternative music scene, A&M signed the Egyptians following Element of Light, releasing their remaining four albums. In general, all these Egyptians discs feature a few amazing songs with some solid but less inspiring Hitchcockiana.

Fegmania is a solid start. The first two A&M albums — Globe of Frogs and Queen Elvis — are nearly as good, with the second being a bit more consistent. The last two discs — Perspex Island and Respect — suffer from slickness and a too-comfortable-with-themselves feeling. A&M’s Greatest Hits is a fine way to summarize these four discs and also features some great singles, outtakes, and side projects. Gotta Let This Hen Out!, the band’s live album and second release, is one of their best moments and captures their live energy well.

Album of the Week, March 6: Parallel Lines by Blondie

BlondieParallelBlondie formed around the core of Debbie Harry and Chris Stein in 1974. Emerging from the ashes of the Stilettos, they called themselves the Angel and the Snake before adopting Blondie, inspired by catcalls Harry received from truckers. With a fluctuating lineup, the group became a mainstay of the early New York punk scene. Much like their British contemporaries, the Clash, they had eclectic tastes, a DIY ethic, enthusiasm that often outstripped finesse, and a knack for writing great songs. Their eponymous 1976 debut — featuring core members Jimmy Destri on keyboards and Clem Burke on drums — was a glorious punk hodgepodge. Plastic Letters featured some great songs but less consistency. After that, the lineup stabilized with second guitarist Frank Infante and bassist Nigel Harrison, and producer Mike Chapman was brought in. The result was a brilliant fusion of punk, disco, new wave, and raw pop — a true gem of the era.

Title Parallel Lines
Act Blondie
Label Chrysalis Release Date September 23, 1978
Producer Mike Chapman
U.S. Chart  #6 U.K. Chart  #1
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Hanging On the Telephone
  2. One Way Or Another [#24]
  3. Picture This
  4. Fade Away and Radiate
  5. Pretty Baby
  6. I Know But I Don’t Know
  7. 11:59
  8. Will Anything Happen?
  9. Sunday Girl
  10. Heart of Glass [#1]
  11. I’m Gonna Love You Too
  12. Just Go Away

Chapman was a notorious taskmaster, insisting that the band members master their instruments and that the songwriting tighten up. His enthusiasm for the band won their trust, and the result maintained their energy while increasing the quality of the music tenfold. With a handful of smart covers and some of the best Blondie originals, the disc bristles with pop power.

Things open with the ring of a phone through the receiver, giving way to a surging guitar and pounding drum. Harry nails a desperate, almost flirty vocal as the group rip through a cover of the Nerves’ Hanging On the Telephone. It’s a perfect start, and makes way for Harry and Harrison’s equally energetic One Way Or Another. Flipping the sexual energy from victim to pursuer, Harry’s subtle change of vocal style is perfect, and Stein turns in a classic new wave guitar lick.

Things calm down a bit on Picture This, a wonderful bit of long-distance romance with some delightful wordplay. Harry’s Fade Away and Radiate is a haunting love song to departed celebrities. She conjures up the smoky flicker of the projector over a smart guitar from Robert Fripp, giving us longing and resignation. (She liked the title enough to recycle it on the later hit Dreaming.) Pretty Baby is a near-Brill Building bit of retro glam with a honeyed vocal and a spot-on rhythm section. Infante’s rare contribution, I Know But I Don’t Know is an entertaining bit of wink-and-nod punk kitsch, the closest to filler on the disc but a nice showcase for the band.

On 11:59, they pull out the stops with a searing “rocket to the ocean.” Gripping and propulsive, it features a soaring vocal and smart lyrics, a standout that hints at future hits. It also features a gorgeous organ line, a bit of urgent carnival music that conjures up the Zombies. The Nerves’ Jack Lee wrote a second track for the band, the fun Will Anything Happen? It’s a nice pop track that keeps the energy flowing. Stein’s Sunday Girl was an international hit (but not at home), a nice bit of wistful power pop.

The monster hit comes next. An old track with many versions (often subtitled “The Disco Song”), Heart of Glass was the first of four Blondie chart-toppers. Some fans called it a sell-out, but its sultry disco sound had percolated through other tracks in the band’s catalog. Honed to glistening perfection by Chapman, it’s a brilliant kiss-off of a song, featuring great playing, one of Harry’s best vocals, and the radio-shocking (for the time) line “pain in the ass.” For this song alone, Parallel Lines is worth the price of admission.

The last cover is Buddy Holly’s I’m Gonna Love You Too, a smart choice that shows off the band’s sense of musical history and varied tastes. As with many Holly songs, it lends itself to interpretation, and Blondie make it their own. Just Go Away is a nice closer, a smirking slam of the door. It ends the proceedings on a strong note, promising wonderful things for all who return.

FURTHER LISTENING: Despite the tension, Chapman was invited back for the band’s next three albums, helping them hone their sound further while they explored more styles. The band broke up in 1982, with Stein suffering from a debilitating genetic disease and Harry splitting time between caring for him and a sporadic solo career. The group reunited in 1999 and continue with a varying lineup today, still featuring Harry, Stein, and Burke. Blondie’s best moments other than Parallel Lines are their debut and the charming, messy Autoamerican. Both Plastic Letters and Eat to the Beat have some fun highlights as well. Most of the 21st Century product is decent reunion material, with 2011’s Panic of Girls rising above the rest.

With a bunch of international chart-toppers and many more Top 10 hits, Blondie have been anthologized heavily. The best overview, especially for those interested in their radio singles, is 1981’s Best of Blondie. The 2006 collection Greatest Hits has more songs — including some less stellar moments — and an interesting DVD with most of the band’s videos.


all contents © Robert Hulshof-Schmidt

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